BY Thomas Bettridge in Reviews | 10 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 23

Transparencies

Bielefelder Kunstverein & Kunstverein Nuremberg, Bielefeld, Nürnberg, Germany

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BY Thomas Bettridge in Reviews | 10 MAR 16

Ryan Gander, The artist’s second phone, 2015, Installation view, Bielefelder Kunstverein, 2015, photo: Philipp Ottendörfer, courtesy: the artist &  Lisson Gallery, London
 

‘It’s not going through’, she said. The members of the press trip – public relations reps, journalists, artists’ assistants – were huddled  in a circle outside the Bielefelder Kunstverein’s opening of Transparencies: The Ambivalence of a New Visibility, convivial and lit with free white wine. In front of us was Ryan Gander’s The Artist’s Second Phone (2015), a billboard with a phone number painted in stenciled Christopher Wool-type lettering. It was mounted as a semipublic display in the Kunstverein’s courtyard (and also in the Kunstverein Nürnberg): outdoors, but not quite high enough to be easily visible from the street. None of us were sure why – aside from a peepshow impulse – we insisted that someone call the artist’s ‘second’ number. Maybe  it was a way to verify the work – ‘Are you there? Great. Thank you for being so available’. We rang Gander twice before giving up and walking to dinner. It was a type of transparency that felt weirdly familiar: an invi-tation followed by an automated message.

Inside, Katja Novitskova’s installation PATTERN OF ACTIVATION (Loki’s Castle) (2015), a machine for rocking babies called a ‘Mamaroo’ (4moms Mamaroo [deep sea], 2015), wiggled in place, imitating a creature from the pitch-black climate of the deep sea. The machine was affixed with curvilinear plastic shards that costumed it as an undiscovered species. The installation also featured several surveillance cameras observing the Mamaroo, streamed on a closed-circuit feed in an installation at the exhibition’s other venue, the Kunstverein Nürnberg. Novitskova’s beast was an explorer and examination subject wrapped in one – a sea anemone sucking nutrients from a vast ocean. Such are the visitors from the places we are told we cannot see: monsters of opacity. 

Minutes before we attempted to dial Gander, one of the artists in attendance threw a wrench into the opening-evening chitchat by showing me a Wikipedia page with a conspiracy theory that the city of Bielefeld itself does not exist. It fed into a feeling  of uncertainty that had been hanging over me since I was sitting in my underwear on my hotel bed (paid for by the Bielefeld Kunstverein), watching a National Geographic survival show called Naked and Afraid and imagining genitals bouncing up and down under the TV censor’s blurred ball of ghost matter. Was the nude ex-Marine going to be able to make a shelter in the Costa Rican wetlands? I wondered how big his penis was because I couldn’t see it.

If you declare that something does not exist, in some way it does exist by virtue of being named. Similarly, the notion of transparency begs the question: What is being hidden from me? How am I being lied to? It is a wire-tapped plane of inquiry, always gate-crashed by a missing third party. ‘Transparency’ is liable to be spoken about in moments of its own failure – when something is hidden or absconded. But when does something pass from being invisible to being transparent? It occurs when we discover smudges on the glass, or find ourselves being violently stopped like birds flying into a sliding door. In a cynical sense, transparency acts as politico-corporate promise for the impossible. But in more idealistic terms, transparency is a desire for immediacy, one that becomes urgent when barriers begin to appear out of thin air: from the walls of Plato’s cave to the PRISM programme.

Katja Novitskova, Hydrothermal Potential (Lost City), aus der Serie »PATTERN OF ACTIVATION (Loki's Castle)«, 2015, Installation view, Bielefelder Kunstverein, 2015, photo: Philipp Ottendörfer, courtesy: the artist & Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin

Transparencies reveals that talking about transparency is a process of tinted-window-shopping. It is a marketplace ruled by opaque boundaries and incomplete conduits, one where content becomes secondary to its delivery system. Nobody frets if Ryan Gander does not pick up his second phone. The group exhibition as a whole embraces this notion by having almost as many ‘platforms’ as  participating artists – two tandem exhibitions featuring different yet sometimes interconnected works by each artist, a bilingual website (transparencies.de), an identity design by Dutch design collective Metahaven (who recently published a book titled Black Transparency, 2015), and a forthcoming catalogue. Co-curators Simone Neuenschwander and Thomas Thiel have deftly approached transparency by turning it into ‘Transparencies’  – by pulverizing the subject into something plural, tautological, and almost definitely water-soluble. How is Yuri Pattison’s correspondence with a Bitcoin miner in rural China  (The Ideal, 2015) the same ‘transparency’ as Neïl Beloufa’s mockumentary about French math students studying their beer-pong-playing North American counterparts (Data for Desire, 2014)? They both extend from a larger gap between experience and its subject matter. Surpassing formal determinations (the state of being see-through), or the political ones (the state of power as a system of visibility), Neuenschwander and Thiel assert transparency as a condition of moral ambivalence. To paraphrase the beginning of their press release: We desire limitless access, yet mourn the disappearance of secrets (another word for privacy).

But an object cannot be ambivalent. People can be. This conflict stages a form of visual language that offers itself as portable, incomplete and disposable. Novitskova’s sculptural allusion to the bio-industrial goldmine of the deep-sea (and child-rearing) appears as an installation in Bielefeld, but completes itself in a rover-style video feed in Nuremberg. In addition to a partially self-censored web archive of autobiographical images (portraitsandrepetition.com), Juliette Blightman’s two-dimensional drawings and paintings gesture towards distant and incomplete scenes of intimacy, such as a landscape of a Berlin sex club (shown in Nuremberg along other drawings), painted from what feels like either memory or imagination. David Horvitz’s Mood Disorder (2012-ongoing) tracks a stock photo that the artist first took of himself – head in arms, signifying mental distress – as it traverses the blogosphere in anonymized form. In a series of photographs, such as Yngve, Berlin, Spring (2013), shown in Bielefeld, Calla Henkel  and Max Pitegoff photographed artists filling out their tax returns in bourgeois-bohemian, coffee- or lunch-table settings, an article of transparency beguiled by the fact that all the juicy personal information is washed away by the camera’s tasteful soft-focus. Along with a snakes-and-ladders-style infographic (Sunshine Unfinished, 2013) on the history of whistleblowing and the concept of transparency, mounted in Nuremberg, Metahaven’s work in Bielefeld, Black Transparency (2013), uses the opaque visual languages of advertising to embody the dissonant notion that political transparency is often achieved through necessarily opaque and propagandistic means. Taken as a group, these works steep in a mood of amorphousness. Yet a direction surfaces with their mutual commitment to epistemology – to processes of knowing and their failure. This reads as a departure from the ontology-heavy programme pushed by recent trends in art and theory. Transparency is not a subject for autonomous objects; it is inherently anthropocentric. It is about human relationships – and the media and technologies that interlace them.

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